40 Years After King: Black Pastors & Tough Love

By DR. MAUREEN H. O’CONNELL, Asst. Prof. of Theology

Published: April 3, 2008

Martin Luther King’s famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address, delivered April 3, 1968, strikes me as particularly poignant this week, as we commemorate the 40th anniversary of his assassination in the midst of debates about black pastors and politics.

I’m struck by King’s specific comments to some ministers from Memphis in the crowd. “Who is it that’s supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher?” King asked.  “Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones and whenever injustice is around he must tell it.”

Unfortunately, 40 years later, urban ministers like Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago or Cornell Smith of Gateway to Heaven Ministries in West Philadelphia or Dwight Webster of Christian Unity Baptist Church in the 9th Ward in New Orleans still have much to fuel the fire in their bones.  Even in this post-civil rights era their congregations are surrounded by social vulnerabilities generated by racism.  A study released by the Brookings Institution in 2005 titled “After Katrina: Confronting Concentrated Poverty Across America” revealed that the dehumanizing intersection of poverty and race which Katrina exposed exists “in cities as diverse as Cleveland, New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles” where “more than 30 percent of poor blacks live in areas of severe social and economic distress.” As recently as 2000, six million Americans lived in “extreme-poverty neighborhoods” (where 85 percent of the residents are black and 40 percent live below the poverty line of roughly $19,000 a year for a family of four).

And so it’s no wonder that black preachers in America’s cities insist on calling our attention to the stark and persistent contradictions in the “American experiment.”  There’s cause for the fire in their bones.

Much like their predecessors in the Hebrew Bible, these prophetic preachers tell those of us who are comfortable things we don’t want to hear: all persons are not treated equally in this country, racism is not a thing of our past, poverty in America is not a result of individual choice but collectively created social structures, and good-intentioned Christians are trapped in an endless cycle of charity which prevents real change.  Moreover, these preachers often do so with diffident dissonance, suggesting, for example, that God ought to damn America for this structural sin rather than bless it.  Many of their fellow citizens are outraged at this un-American and un-Christian rhetoric.

However, the prophet Amos said as much when he warned the erring people of Israel, “Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line…and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land” (Amos 7:17).  Inflammatory statements like that one surely raised some hackles. And yet the truth about the ways in which the people of Israel were treating the most vulnerable among them—the widow, the orphan, the alien—had to be told if they were to return to their righteous place among the nations.  It’s a case of tough neighbor love that makes demands on the privileged and comfortable.

King was not unaware of this backlash  and recognized that the legitimacy of the fire in a preacher’s bones comes from their “relevant ministry” in the trenches of social change: calling attention to the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” and empowering their congregants to close it.

Again, the situation has not changed significantly in 40 years.  Black churches continue to be among the primary agents for social welfare and advocacy in neighborhoods that civil society has long forgotten.  Black churches fill in the gaping holes in the “safety net” provided by the market and the government to people trapped in pockets of concentrated poverty.  For example, the Jeremiah Group in New Orleans, an ecumenical consortium of nearly 40 faith communities, has been working for more than 15 years across racial, economic and denominational lines to address the multifaceted problems of poverty in the city.  Since Katrina, the group has offered “soft second mortgages”—forgivable loans of up to $50,000 that create new possibilities for homeownership.  While Congress debates relief packages for the housing industry, Black churches have just gone ahead and provided it.

Amos, Michah, Isaiah Jeremiah and their contemporary counterparts in communities on the margins call our attention to the ways in which we have broken the covenant with God and neighbor, as well as the social contract which binds us as a nation.  They unleash the fire that has been shut up in their bones and demand—with no time for politeness—that we recommit to this covenant and contract.

King rightly noted in his last public address, “It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day.”  That’s tougher talk that needs
to be heard.